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The Life of Kingsley Amisby Zachary Leader
"In this astonishingly fine and serious book, which by no means skips the elements of scandal and salacity, Zachary Leader has struck a near-ideal balance between the life and the work, and has traced the filiations between the two without any strain or pretension....Zachary Leader's wonderful book shows us both [sides of Amis], as it illustrates the rival processes of composition and decomposition." Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"[A] monumentally thorough biography....Zachary Leader has done a truly wonderful job of assembling the multifarious and contradictory elements that went to make up this mischievous, self-destructive chameleon of a novelist..." Peter Green, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
Here is the authorized, definitive biography of one of the most controversial figures of twentieth-century literature, renowned for his blistering intelligence, savage wit and belligerent fierceness of opinion. Kingsley Amis was not only the finest comic novelist of his generation — having first achieved prominence with the publication of Lucky Jim in 1954 and as one of the Angry Young Men — but also a dominant figure in post—World War II British writing as novelist, poet, critic and polemicist.
In The Life of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader, acclaimed editor of The Letters of Kingsley Amis, draws not only on unpublished works and correspondence but also on interviews with a wide range of Amis's friends, relatives, fellow writers, students and colleagues, many of whom have never spoken out before. The result is a compulsively readable account of Amis's childhood, school days and life as a student at Oxford, teacher, critic, political and cultural commentator, professional author, husband, father and lover. Even as he makes the case for Amis's cultural centrality — at his death Time magazine claimed that "the British decades between 1955 and 1995 should in fairness be called 'the Amis era'" — Leader explores the writer's phobias, self-doubts and ambitions; the controversies in which he was embroiled; and the role that drink played in a life bedeviled by erotic entanglements, domestic turbulence and personal disaster.
Dazzling for its thoroughness, psychological acuity and elegant style, The Life of Kingsley Amis is exemplary: literary biography at its very best.
"Leader delivers a scrupulously researched and unfailingly entertaining account of the life of one of postwar Britain's funniest and most famous writers. Amis (1922 — 1995) asserted that many writers lead dull lives, but his was especially high-spirited, particularly once he left his restrictive parents for Oxford and beyond. Known first as a poet, Amis began an academic career in Wales at University College of Swansea after marrying Hilary Bardwell (mother of his three children, including contemporary British writer Martin Amis), but his springboard to literary celebrity was the 1954 publication of the comic classic Lucky Jim. Leader (editor, 2001's The Letters of Kingsley Amis) combines exhaustive biographical detail with trenchant literary analysis for a complex, remarkable portrait of Amis and his work: his prodigious output (more than 40 books, including novels, poetry, anthologies and nonfiction), his notorious womanizing and boozing as well as his friendships, including his central relationship (illuminated by lively excerpts of correspondence) with poet Philip Larkin. This massive, splendid biography bears out Leader's contention that Amis was 'a compelling person, a man of alarming appetites and energies, the funniest man most people had ever met, or the cleverest, or the rudest.' 24 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Modesty scarcely was Kingsley Amis' long suit, so perhaps it is appropriate that neither is modesty the long suit of Zachary Leader, a British academic who has written, in his gargantuan 'Life of Kingsley Amis,' what amounts to the official biography of the late novelist, humorist, journalist and television talking head. According to Leader, this biography 'shows what it was like to meet Amis and... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to be him' and 'makes a case for the breadth and depth of his writing and ... tells the story of how and why he did what he did, both as a writer and as a man.' One might consider these judgments to be reached by reviewers and readers rather than by the author himself, but Leader is his own reviewer: 'Six themes shape this biography: the formative influence of Amis' early upbringing, which he himself identified as a key to his personality and to many of the most pressing concerns of his fiction and poetry; the aggression which is so marked a feature of his character and writings; his astonishing energy (to his son Martin he was `a great engine of comedy'); his sense of writing as craft or profession; his hostility to distinctions between high culture and low and concomitant attraction to popular forms; and his lifelong obsession with egotism, selfishness, inconsiderateness, qualities he acutely anatomises and censures in his writing even as they threaten to overwhelm him in life.' Well, thank you, sir. All that occurs on page 6. Doesn't seem much point in reading (or writing) the rest of this review, does there, not to mention reading (or writing) the rest of 'The Life of Kingsley Amis'? But write Leader most certainly did, to the exhausting (for the reader, though apparently not for him) length of 822 pages of text, plus all the usual scholarly apparatus. Since Amis' own books were models of concision, clarity and wit, it is both bizarre and wildly inappropriate that he is now subjected to an elephantine biography such as one might expect to emerge from the literature department of an American university, but there is an explanation: Though Leader has taught in England for fully three decades, he is an American by birth who retains his American citizenship and, it certainly seems, the American academic infatuation with bloated literary biography. Somewhat surprisingly, Leader's life of Amis was received enthusiastically in England. Having previously read, and generally admired, Eric Jacobs' 'Kingsley Amis: A Biography' (1995), I saw no special need for yet another (there are three or four others of lesser note) but was curious about the wealth of detail this new one was said to provide. What the book itself demonstrates, though, is that the line between wealth and poverty is thinner than is usually believed. If there is anything Leader knows about Amis that he doesn't tell here, there is no evidence of it, but all these recitals of Amis' two marriages and compulsive womanizing, his astonishing drinking, his gregariousness and selfishness, his successes and occasional failures, his incredible productivity — all this stuff doesn't give us nearly as much of Amis as Leader obviously imagines. The inner man is as much a mystery at the end of this slog as he was at the beginning; the accumulation of meaningless detail (on page 615, by way of one especially numbing example, Leader manages to drop no fewer than 29 names, various Amises not included) is a poor substitute for deeply informed, genuinely sympathetic speculation. It can be argued, and perhaps was argued by Leader's British reviewers, that such a mountain of detail manages to convey a sense of the subject's quotidian life: what he (or she) ate and drank and with whom, where he shopped, how he got around town, whom he liked and whom he didn't, et cetera, et cetera. There's some truth to this. A sense of the subject's ordinary day is something the reader justifiably hopes to be given. But discrimination — deciding what matters in the subject's life and what doesn't — is far more important, and there is none of it here. In brief: Amis was born in South London in 1922 into a family that was 'lower middle class and suburban.' His father was a socially and intellectually insecure white-collar worker, and his mother was beset by various anxieties. He got to Oxford just before the war and made important friendships there, most notably with the future novelist and poet Philip Larkin. He served without incident in World War II, wrapped up his studies at Oxford at its end, met and married Hilary (Hilly) Bardwell, and in 1949 found a teaching job at the University College of Swansea. He was happy there and ever after remembered it with fondness, but the exposure it gave him to academic life led to his first (and best) novel, 'Lucky Jim,' the classic satire of academia. Published in 1954, the novel was a great success and immediately established Amis for good. He had arrived. Soon he was widely assumed to be one of England's leading literary Angry Young Men, but the label didn't really fit, and he usually expressed discomfort with it. Though he was terrible with money, he usually had enough, and most of the time he was happy. As he wrote to Larkin toward the end of 1953, tongue firmly in cheek: 'What I want ... is a chance to decide, from personal experience, that a life of cocktail parties, cars, week-ending at rich houses, wine, night-clubs and jazz won't bring happiness. I want to prove that money isn't everything, to learn that pleasure cloys.' Thereafter his life had three central themes: work, women and booze, though one would be hard-pressed to say in what order they should be ranked. The reader is likely to be amazed — I certainly was — that he managed to get so much work done, not to mention done so well, amid all those liaisons and hangovers, but he published more than 40 books and innumerable reviews, articles and other fugitive pieces. Most of his books are out of print in this country (Leader says at the end of the biography that Penguin plans a general reissue), and it's unclear how many have staying power: 'Lucky Jim' and 'The Old Devils,' most certainly, and perhaps 'One Fat Englishman,' 'Take a Girl Like You' and 'Girl, 20,' but many of the others now seem dated, and one can't help noting that at the center of most of them is a character suspiciously like Kingsley Amis. On this, if not on much else, Leader is good. Amis disliked being called an autobiographical writer (though he readily acknowledged that parts of him were in all his books), but Leader shows how closely his books were connected to his life and how one can learn much about him simply by reading them. This raises, again, the previous question — why bother to read this biography? — but it does underscore the intimate connections between life and work. Leader is also good at demonstrating Amis' eagerness to try new forms and his deep sympathy for the best of popular culture, from jazz to Ian Fleming to, as Amis himself put it, 'the action novel, the thriller, the ghost story, science fiction, the western, the stories of espionage and private eyes and all that kind of thing: all separate little streams.' Amis generally is counted one of the best British comic writers of the 20th century. This is a fair judgment, though against the principal competition, Evelyn Waugh, Amis comes up short. He is notable as well for his influence on other, younger British satirists, especially of academic life, among them David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. He was 'the most clubbable of men' and was loved by many friends, but he had many insecurities (he didn't drive or fly, 'suffered from night terrors and screaming fits'), and he was capable of childish selfishness and willfulness. If he was in the mood to be good company, that's just what he was, but if he wasn't, watch out. As is often the case with biographies of writers, one comes to the end of this one convinced that it is better to be in the company of Amis' books than of the man himself. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Rajiv ChandrasekaranRachel Hartigan SheaMarina WarnerCarrie SheffieldMichael MewshawDavid TreuerMichael DirdaJonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This is one big, fat, and fascinating biography of Kingsley Amis....
"A fastidious effort to portray the mighty Kingsley in his full glory." Kirkus Reviews
"Do not be put off by the sheer bulk of Zachary Leader's massive new biography: Its nearly 1,000 pages contain all sorts of splendid things about Kingsley Amis, his life and his works....Love Amis or hate him, know nothing about him or cannot know too much, this book should not be missed." San Francisco Chronicle
"Extremely well told, The Life of Kingsley Amis will meet the expectations and probably exceed the ambitions of most readers." Chicago Sun-Times
"Respectful of Amis and of all who became part of the story through their association with him, Mr. Leader fulfills his mission: honestly telling the history that explains the books." Wall Street Journal
Book News Annotation:
This comprehensive biography of British comic novelist Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) draws on interviews with those who knew him, his fiction and poetry, memoirs, and letters to describe his life. Leader (English literature, U. of Roehampton, UK) uses six themes to construct the narrative: the influence of his early upbringing, aggression in his character and writings, his energy, his sense of writing as craft or profession, his issues with distinctions between high and low culture and love of popular forms, and his obsession with egotism, selfishness, and inconsiderateness. He also discusses his writing methods and the relationship of his writings to his contemporaries. Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In this, the authorized biography, Zachary Leader argues that Kingsley Amis was not only the finest comic novelist of his generation, but the dominant figure of post-war British writing. Drawing not only on interviews with a range of Amis's friends, relatives, fellow writers, students and colleagues, many of them never before consulted, but also on almost a thousand previously unpublished letters, Leader's biography will for the first time give a full picture of Amis's childhood, school-days, life as a teacher, critic, polemicist, professional author, husband, father and lover. He explores Amis's fears and phobias, and the role that drink played in his life. And of course he pays due attention to Amis's work.
In this authorized biography, Leader argues that Amis was not only the finestcomic novelist of his generation, but the dominant figure of post-war Britishwriting. Covering the entirety of Amis's life, this book has the potential to surprise, entertain, and illuminate.
About the Author
Zachary Leader is a professor of English literature at Roehampton University in England. Among his books are studies of Romantic poetry and modern British fiction. Leader edited The Letters of Kingsley Amis ("One of the last major monuments of the epistolary art." — The Sunday Telegraph).
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